21Wilberforce was an organizational partner for the third annual IRF Summit held in Washington, DC from January 30th to February 1st. A coalition of organizations and individuals working for the cause of religious freedom around the world attended the event. Work session content was organized within four tracks: defending, documenting, developing, and denying religious freedom. Hundreds of attendees gathered to learn, to connect, and to shape the future of IRF advocacy work. As in years past, the personal testimonies of survivors of religious persecution brought attention to the plight of persecuted individuals.
What follows is a brief synopsis of 21Wilberforce team involvement during the Summit.
Pre-summit congressional advocacy week
Trent Martin, 21Wilberforce Advocacy and Training Coordinator, and our three Associates joined a multi-faith coalition of organizations that briefed over 60 members of the new U.S. Congress on key international religious freedom issues.
The outreach effort focused on establishing relationships with Congressional representatives and/or their staff who are members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. During each meeting, some led by 21Wilberforce Associates, messaging encouraged three specific actions that representatives and their staff can take: adopting a prisoner of conscience, utilizing 21Wilberforce’s IRF Congressional Scorecard and engaging in the multi-faith IRF Roundtable.
In-Person international religious freedom roundtable
The first in-person gathering of the IRF Roundtable in three years was hosted in the Senate Dirksen Office Building. Trent Martin, 21Wilberforce’s Advocacy and Training Coordinator, joined a panel of fellow leaders to share about the work of the Congressional Working Group. He highlighted some of the prominent legislative wins that 21Wilberforce and the Congressional Working Group supported over the last year, including the reauthorization of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Burma Act, and the revitalization of the IRF Caucus in the House.
USCIRF commissioners town hall: women and freedom of religion or belief
FoRB Women’s Alliance, a program initiative of 21Wilberforce, collaborated with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom for an IRF Summit 2023 townhall to kick off the Summit on the topic of women and freedom of religion or belief.
Seven of nine USCIRF Commissioners spoke on a concerning trend that the Commission has documented: religious freedom violations specifically targeted at and affecting women. FoRB Women’s Alliance co-founder, Judy Golub, facilitated their discussion on religious freedom issues facing women and policy recommendations for advancing the religious freedom of women around the world.
Lou Sabatier, FoRB Women’s Alliance co-founder, wrapped up the town hall with comments on how civil society and faith groups can engage on the issue.
Collaborative workshop on effective congressional advocacy
As an official IRF Summit 2023 side event, 21Wilberforce led an interactive workshop attended by over 40 advocates, faith leaders and officials. The session provided an opportunity to collectively analyze their current congressional efforts, hone their approach to effective engagement with Congress and build stronger coalitions within the IRF movement that will lead to tangible action and results.
International religious freedom champion, USCIRF Commissioner, and former 21Wilberforce Distinguished Senior Fellow Frank Wolf opened the event with a rousing speech that shared from his own experiences on how to motivate members of Congress to act on behalf of the persecuted. He especially encouraged the participants to ensure that the issue remains bipartisan and to encourage members of Congress to visit personally countries to observe persecution issues on the ground.
John Gongwer, 21Wilberforce’s Executive Director, organized participant breakout discussion groups where they discussed best practices and common mistakes in three areas of congressional advocacy: congressional actions, civil society advocacy, and grassroot community mobilization. The groups were facilitated by Amjad Khan, National Director for Public Affairs in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Judy Golub, experienced religious freedom advocate, and Trent Martin of 21Wilberforce.
The session concluded with each group sharing discussion outcomes with the larger audience. The innovative approaches for engagement and will be shared with all participants.
Burma prayer service
21Wilberforce staff joined faith leaders and advocates from Burma, the United States and around the world to pray for the people of Myanmar at the 2-year mark of the military junta’s coup. Prayers were especially offered for Pastor Hkalam Samson and Pastor Thian Lian Sang, both are prisoners of conscience.
Trent Martin offered a short reflection and prayer during the service.
Youth-led projects defend religious freedom in Myanmar
Trent Martin led a session that marked the two-year anniversary of the Burmese military junta’s coup.
Ambassador Samuel Brownback, MP Fiona Bruce from the UK, and Ambassador Robert Kehak from the Czech Republic gave short remarks to kick off the session. One of the issues highlighted was the importance of young adults learning from global IRF leaders.
A panel comprised of four young Burmese and Burmese-American leaders discussed the ways in which the Burmese government has persecuted religious minorities and the problems, challenges, and successes that youth-led groups have experienced in advocating for these communities. Looking forward, the advocates stressed the need for increased awareness and media attention of the crisis in Myanmar. They also noted the desperate need for education that many youth in Myanmar yearn for, but are currently unable to obtain due to the ongoing violence.
These panelists are a powerful example of how young leaders from the Burmese diaspora can be mobilized to work together with young leaders in Burma for religious freedom.
Global partners strategy meetings
John Gongwer, Trent Martin and Lou Sabatier held multiple strategic discussions with partners who had traveled to the Summit from around the world. Our team engaged with advocates, government officials, and faith leaders to discuss ways to partner on religious freedom in Burma, Nigeria, Ukraine, the United Nations, etc..